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There aren’t many musical canons that Ashlee Simpson, Beyonce and Public Image Ltd. all belong to, but they’re eternalized together in at least one Hall of Fame: the all-time greatest lip syncers.
The history of gesturing with your mouth and/or instruments to a pre-recorded backing track is nearly as old as the concept of music television, but certain artists have pulled it off with a greater flair for the dramatic than others — some of whom have done it on purpose and some by accident; some of whom have become cult favorites for their incidents; and some who’ve had their careers submarined as a result.
It’s a complicated legacy, and one of course that added a particularly legendary name to its timeline over the 2016 holidays in Mariah Carey. But where does Carey’s surreal, much-debated New Year’s fiasco rank in the pantheon of mic-mimers? Let’s count ’em down.
10. Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean” (Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever, 1983); Whitney Houston, “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Super Bowl XXV, 1991)
A joint No. 10 for two of the most legendary lip-synced performances ever: When Michael Jackson premiered his soon-to-be-trademark Moonwalk dance for the first time before miming along to his Thriller smash at Motown’s 25th Anniversary concert, and when Whitney Houston unleashed a pre-recorded version of our national anthem at Super Bowl XXV that was so popular it would go on to hit the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 as a single. Why so low on this list, then? Because the performances were so spectacular regardless that their lip syncing is practically incidental — many watching didn’t even realize they were faked at the time, some probably still don’t, and most won’t ever care all that much.
9. New Kids on the Block, general allegations (1992)
Thanks to the scandal surrounding an artist to come much higher on this list, lip syncing became a particularly hot-button issue in the early ‘90s, and artists accused of it stood the risk of being totally discredited. So when former New Kids on the Block associate producer Gregory McPherson alleged in ’92 that the boy band were only responsible for a fraction of the vocals on their record, it was a big enough deal that one fan filed a $75-million class-action lawsuit, and the group scheduled an emergency booking on The Arsenio Hall Show to demonstrate their IRL singing prowess. NKOTB admitted to singing along to some backing tracks, but lip-syncing chargers were never proven, and McPherson dropped the charges later that year.
8. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Give It Away” (Super Bowl XLVIII, 2014)
When RHCP joined headliner Bruno Mars at the Super Bowl XLVIII halftime show, many observant viewers noted that their guitars were not even plugged in, and accused the group of faking the funk. Peppers bassist Flea got in front of the controversy by issuing a statement on the band’s website, admitting that yes, only the group’s vocals were live, but that they hadn’t been given a choice by producers, and didn’t want to miss out on the “surreal-like, once in a lifetime crazy thing” of playing the February Classic. Though some diehards may have remained disappointed in the decision, most fans seemed to accept the explanation, and three years later the incident barely ranks as a footnote in the quartet’s legacy.
7. Beyonce, “The Star Spangled Banner” (Presidential Inauguration, 2013)
Beyonce’s supremacy as a live performer was at risk for about 15 seconds after it was confirmed that she had lip synced at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration, which the singer said she opted to do after not getting a chance to sound check or rehearse with the orchestra (“I did not feel comfortable taking a risk”). But her pop peers came to her defense, most fans acknowledged the reality of the situation, and The Queen stayed The Queen, to the surprise of no one.
6. Britney Spears / Sia, “Perfume” (Las Vegas Residency, 2014)
It was hardly the first time that Britney Spears had been spotted lip syncing — most fans had long accepted that a healthy percentage of Britney’s live performances would essentially be dance-only — but usually, at least she was mimicking her own vocal track. In a 2014 performance at her Planet Hollywood residency, however, she fake-belted her way along to a backing track of Britney Jean single “Perfume” that many speculated was actually delivered by Sia, a co-writer whose backing vocals appear on the song. Though the mishap was of minor embarrassment to Spears, it mostly served to endear her to her fan base for her live commitment to the ill-fated rendition.
5. Muse, “Uprising” (Quell che… il Calcio, 2009)
When stadium-alternative upstarts Muse were told on the set of an Italian-language entertainment show that they would have to lip sync along with their The Resistance single “Uprising,” they decided to switch up their instruments, with frontman Matt Bellamy miming the drums and timekeeper Dominic Howard handling the faux-vocals. It was a laugh for fans, but less so for the show’s hosts: “Apparently it completely came across that we were taking the piss out of the presenter, who is some X Factor judge that no one really likes,” Howard told Spinner later that year. “The Italian press turned it into quite a story.”
4. Public Image Ltd., “Poptones” / “Careering” (American Bandstand, 1980)
Thirty-seven years after Johnny Rotten’s second band played their famously anarchic mini-set on American Bandstand — quickly abandoning any pretense of live instrumentation to mingle with the crowd and mess around with the set — the remarkable thing about it remains that the trio got to bring their droning death disco to the show in the first place. But host Dick Clark says he supported the group, claiming that he met their warnings of chaos with “be my guest,” and later ranking the performance as one of the best in Bandstand history.
3. Mariah Carey, “Emotions” / “We Belong Together” (Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin‘ Eve, 2016)
The in-ear monitor malfunction heard ’round the world will undoubtedly be remembered for many ball-drops to come, with Mariah’s ad-libbed, lip-synced (and often not-even-lip synced), self-narrated debacle proving an instantly iconic moment in live television history. However, despite the weeks’ worth of headlines it’s well on its way to producing, it’s hard for the incident to crack the top two on the list, because it’s just so Mariah — the diva is beloved by fans nearly as much for her unpredictability, peerless shading skills and ability to own disaster as she is for her singular pop back catalog at this point. In no time, it’ll just be part of Mimi lore, like Glitter, the TRL appearance, and every other once-inauspicious moment that today adds to her overall legend.
2. Ashlee Simpson, “Pieces of Me” (Saturday Night Live, 2004)
The unreal sequence of Ashlee Simpson’s SNL blunder proved that in the 21st century, how you deal with getting caught in a lip sync is much more important than the incident itself. Of course, Simpson decided to deal with it by doing a couple jigs, blaming her band, then blaming acid reflux, with each step further digging herself deeper underneath the snowballing story — and unlike Mariah, whose brand is part crisis at this point, this hardly worked for the thinking-person’s-pop-star persona Ashlee previously had made for herself. Today, it’s the thing the once-promising star is probably remembered best for, and that hilarious, stupefying video of her hoeing down while her career crumples around her looks positively Nero-esque.
1. Milli Vanilli, “Girl You Know It’s True” (Club MTV, 1989)
No lip syncing controversy is likely to ever again compare to that of Rob & Fab, the duo of international dance-pop sensations whose supernova success as Milli Vanilli was snuffed out by confirmed allegations that they never sang on their own records. The revelation came slowly to public knowledge, but first bubbled up in a Club MTV live performance, where a skipping recording exposed the two as lip-syncing, resulting in them running off the stage mid-gig.
The mishap was low-visibility enough that their career continued mostly unabated from there, but after singer Charles Shaw told the press that his voice was on the records and group manager Frank Farian eventually confirmed it, the backlash was unprecedented — with the duo having their Grammy revoked and being forced to refund album and ticket purchasers for their deception. They never had another hit, and long after the memories of Mariah’s incident and those of other future mimers have receded into the background, they will remain the act most inextricable with the phrase “lip syncing.”
A version of this story originally appeared on Billboard.com.
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